To those of us possessing a passing understanding of the term “trilogy” it came as a bit of a surprise when Michael Bay confirmed that he was on board with and beginning development on a fourth installment of the Transformers movie franchise (though it appears someone has apprised him of that error). The result will defile movie screens later this summer and, no doubt, rake in obscene amounts of money (and it is entirely fair to note that some of that money will be mine).
Lost in this somewhat dubious future, however, is a little bit of history: 2014 also marks 30 years since the debut of the original Transformers animated series here in the U.S. We already know how Bay will commemorate the occasion: an orgy of violence and explosions, accompanied by a healthy dose of not-so-subtle implication that most of those watching don’t understand the true meaning of self-sacrifice and inner strength (traits which, by the way, we can apparently learn through close observation of John Voight), and topped off with a light sprinkling of gratuitous boob bouncing and casual sex references (the just reward to those young men who do know the aforementioned virtues).
To some of us, though, this is not the Transformers we grew up with. Through the relentless violent pounding of modern movie-making, the old sense of simple imagination has gotten lost since ’84. I could spend hours detailing each affront, but I would rather take a moment and talk a little, not about what is wrong now, but rather what makes those early cartoons so great to me, even as an adult.
It’s the cars, stupid
Let’s be honest here, despite the growth of the human element, everyone goes to see these movies for the Transformers themselves, and one thing we can expect from Bay’s next outing is a bevy of cool cars. Indeed, trailers show such notables as the Bugatti Veyron, Lamborghini Aventador and Pagani Huayra. Omnipresent, of course, are the GM vehicles — Bumblebee in concept Camaro guise, the Corvette Stingray, the Hummer H2, etc.
The downside is that all the vehicles featured are there because big bucks were paid to assure high visibility. Though there is undeniable cool factor, product placement still reigns supreme, especially in the GM-dominated Autobots. In the early/mid ’80s things were a bit different. The animators and toy designers behind Transformers wouldn’t have dreamed of designing one of their characters around an average (or even above-average) American car. This was partially because all the characters were conceived in Japan, but mostly because American cars in the ’80s (as well as the decades both preceding and following) were, for the most part, awful. Whatever the case, the Asian origins of the series didn’t preclude the use of several European models as character vehicles, nor the use of the much more interesting American trucks and military vehicles. One thing is for sure: the criteria had much less to do with who paid what to get their product drawn on screen — and that made the vehicle choices much more interesting.
Since I am a car guy, I have decided to celebrate 30 years of awesome by looking back at two of the lesser-known characters in the first two seasons (before things got… weird… on the vehicle front) and talking a little about the cars that made them come to life for me. Why focus on the also-rans? Well, everyone can identify the original Bumblebee in yellow VW Bug form, Hound’s Jeep, or the somewhat more obvious Dinobots. Beyond those, though, there are some remarkably curious choices for vehicles and characters here. At least, I think so anyway.
The mad scientist
Wheeljack — Lancia Stratos
The Stratos is an odd car choice for any character of any kind. To be fair, it enjoyed considerable success as a rally car in the ’70s, and its exclusivity and Italian heritage should combine to make it a desirable supercar alternative to Lambos and Ferraris of the time. The Stratos, however, was (and still is) known as much (if not more) for what made it quirky as what made it great. Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond of Top Gear rank it among the greatest cars made by one of their favorite automakers, for instance, but spend as much time talking about how uncomfortable it is, and how everything is in the wrong spot, as how wonderfully it handles and how pretty it is. By the time the first episode of Transformers aired it was also out of production for ten years, and becoming more obscure by the moment. An odd choice, then, for a fresh new show.
Upon closer inspection, though, it is the perfect vehicle choice for the Wheeljack character. Wheeljack is quirky — he speaks with an accent that is an odd mix of Minnesota and New England, but his mouth doesn’t move. Rather, his jowls light up in time with his voice. He is, however, probably the most capable Autobot — part scientist, part mechanic, part inventor. While not a doctor, he is usually called on to repair the others, and is even knowledgeable enough to construct the Dinobots with the help of his companions. His lab on Cybertron is the stuff of gearhead dreams — full of spare parts and experiments in various states of completion. As the bio on his action figure package states, though, he is “his own worst enemy. Often injured while experimenting with new weapons.” His personality pairs well with the Stratos, then: equal parts bemusing quirk and technical marvel.
Tracks — C3 Chevrolet Corvette
Hm. Didn’t I just get done talking about how the makers of this show would never use an American sports car? Yep. And more to the point, by the end of its run the third generation Corvette was one reason why many so doubted America’s ability to build a quick, sporty car anymore. There were probably copyright issues with using the then-brand-new C4 ‘Vette, but if you’re stuck depicting an older model, why not one of the truly cool ones? The original Stingray, for instance, would have brought a better vehicular personality, in my opinion. Why choose what was, even then, the weakest Corvette offering ever? In fairness, in the context of time, the late-model C3 was undoubtedly viewed differently than its reputation now. Still, this is a vehicle choice I never understood given how many other options there were for this character.
And the Tracks character is certainly one that demands its fair share of discussion. He is narcissistic and vain to a fault. Those traits alone, when combined with the American car body, point to a certain bias on the part of the character developers. However, the addition of his Boston Brahmin accent, obsession with his own decorations and pretty finish, and his inability to relate to fellow Autobots led to an ongoing debate regarding his perceived sexuality (an assessment that is not helped by the fact that he randomly sprouts wings and flies around, some might say, like a fairy). That’s probably reading a bit too deep in to what is, ultimately, a character in a children’s cartoon, and most “reputable” online sources conclude that there really is no obvious evidence, one way or the other. It is fair to say, however, that Tracks is a startlingly multifaceted character for such a secondary role — probably more multifaceted than the vehicle form he so admires in the storefront reflections as he drives past.
Those are just the first two that spring to mind for me. There are certainly others (I didn’t , for instance, take on any of the Decepticons). I’d be interested to hear yours.